Be a healthy trail runner; spice up your stretching

Written by Stephen R. Santangelo for the Spring 2019 edition of our Trail Times newsletter.

Many folks find stretching to be rather boring; especially, when the choice of stretching becomes repetitive. Not only is stretching important to prepare the muscles and joints for the trails, it is imperative to ignite the CNS (Central Nervous System). It is simple enough to loosen up tight muscles, however, a necessary training protocol is to develop pattern recognition, skill acquisition and reactive skills – all neurologically driven.

Properly warming up the body for an event or workout is not limited to metabolic stimulation. It’s all about body alignment, postural correctness, firing in proper sequence and training neural pathways to react AFAP (As Fast As Possible). These signals occur up to a billion times per second in brain cells which facilitate the rapid transfer of electrical signals which, in turn, creates the ability to react and execute bio-motor actions in a coordinated flow in order to move as efficiently as possible. Exercises such as long distance running and cycling or high rep sets in the gym are metabolic. These movement patterns are very repetitive with limited range of motion. Also, in order to perform high repetitive exercises, one must move at a slower pace in order to achieve specific number of reps or a certain number of miles in running or cycling. This type of activity relies upon, considerably, fewer muscle fibers to be activated to perform the given tasks.

As trail runners we need to look further into our general physical preparedness, which aids in faster recovery from injuries and minimizing the number of injuries. There isn’t any such thing as a magical exercise to “eliminate” injury. With as much stress as we trail runners place on our bodies, injury is inevitable! Believe it or not, we are all vulnerable; something we athletes have a difficult time accepting!

Let’s get started with spicing up our dynamic warm ups!

One of my top 3 warm ups is using an agility ball. Regardless, if you’re doing hill repeats on grass in your favorite park or on the track performing continuous tempos, intensive tempos or extensive tempos, this is for you. The agility ball is very unpredictable. As seen in the photograph, there are multiple, non-repetitive movements stimulating every muscle and using multiple joint angles to complete various tasks; specifically, intra-muscular co-ordination, which is neurologically driven. Ten minutes of this will have you well prepared for your chosen workout.

In the 6 images below, I’m firing up the body for doing 250 meter hill repeats at a nearby park.

Warm up #2 gets the body jumping. Start in a wide stance upright position. Squat into a deep frog position. Thrust legs back in ballistic fashion. Drive the legs forward into a wide stance and stand up. The challenge for yourself is to drop as deep as possible and kick the legs back rapidly. This movement pattern will open up the hips, stabilize the trunk and prepare the tendons to accept the ground force from the uneven surfaces on the trails. These reactive skills are important factors to prevent momentum deprivation and co-ordination erosion over the long haul.

Warm up #3 places great emphasis on the knee attachments, deep hip attachments by stretching specific muscles in the hip rotator cuff as well as the leg biceps. Pictured are novice (above) and advance (below) positions for this drill. For the novice, hold onto a tree and for an advance runner with a strength background, keep the hands free from holding on. Place your right foot on your left knee and squat to a position where the thigh is parallel to the ground; hold for a 3 count and stand up. Switch legs and repeat.

Remember, these are “warm up” drills, not exercises for multiple sets and reps – leave that in the gym. This dynamic warm up is designed to prepare the body to accept the ground force on uneven surfaces of the trail. Each of these exercises open the joints to allow the synovial fluids surrounding the joint. Synovial fluid is the thick liquid that lubricates your joints and keeps them moving smoothly. This will optimize motion around the connective tissue and help prevent deterioration of joint and tendon attachments. At one time or another we have all experienced hip and knee discomfort from pounding the trails over the years.

This is emotionally and psychologically challenging and will have you coming back for more until you have conquered your goal. Above all, it’s fun and keeps variety in your training!